Bob Jones University & "Jesus-baiting"

Bju_amphitoriumCharlie Madigan, senior correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, coins the phrase “Jesus-baiting” to introduce his report from the dreaded Bob Jones University, which he calls “the shiny, big brass buckle on the Bible belt.”

Here is Madigan’s explanation of Jesus-baiting:

Listen to what a candidate says to a particular audience, a religious audience, and my Jesus-baiting antennae go straight up. Gay marriage is an issue that draws out a lot of Jesus-baiters, as does abortion and, this time around, stem-cell research. It’s a certified way of getting a religious audience on your side–just turn to Jesus.

Madigan took a few assumptions with him to BJU’s home in Greenville, S.C., but he’s open about them: the school is at the discomfiting heart of religious certainty; it is an unwitting political lightning rod; and its people might be “tools and props in the political process,” especially for conservative Republicans. (Madigan refers to moderate Repubicans — “assuming there are any of those left” — feeling uneasy with BJU’s atmosphere of certainty.)

He traces Jesus-baiting, interestingly enough, back to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (Madigan thinks the speech occurred in West Virginia): “He was playing a sophisticated, reverse-Jesus card aimed at convincing Protestant Democrats, which was much of the South in that era, that he would not be taking collect calls from Rome on policy matters.”

Once Madigan begins describing his visit to BJU, his witty descriptive reporting outshines his commentary:

Chapel opened with “Soldiers of Christ Arise,” then some prayers, musical selections from some students and a pitch from one of the graduate school folks to get as many seniors as possible to step up and go to graduate school now instead of waiting. It was not a bad pitch, particularly the part where the speaker noted that babies have fat heads and have to grow into them. Somehow, he made the transition from there to growing into Christ’s head.

I didn’t get it, but it was kind of funny and the students did, which was just the point.

A few students agree with Madigan that they’re in danger of being used:

[Megan] Smith said false promises are very disappointing.

“I do think that a lot of the time politicians try to appeal to the religious portion of the electorate. It’s a strong vote. I would say, no, they don’t generally stand by what they say. It has made me cynical and dubious about politics. Can I really believe what they are saying? Are they going to follow through on what they say?”

. . . Mark Neidig, a senior majoring in international studies, said he makes a distinction between being used and being catered to. All politicians try to cater to people to build supporting campaigns, he said. “Time will tell,” he said.

Paul Matzko, a sophomore, said what bothers him most is that people use the religious right as a handy straw man for all kinds of purposes. He sees Bush’s problem in 2000, and the problem it created at Bob Jones, as a classic. There were some accurate criticisms, he said, but some falsehoods involved, too. “They knocked us down to get at Bush,” he said.

. . . English major Natalie Brenneman, a junior, said she agrees that sometimes the Christian right is being used, but that’s mainly because politicians want to look good for everyone. “They use every group to get into power.” Her solution to that realpolitik thought is discernment. “Are they genuine, or are they using us?” she said. “You need to discern.”

By the end of his report, Madigan remains worried about Jesus-baiting:

Well, it’s good to meet people who feel certain about something.

I still have this nagging feeling that American politics, in Jesus-baiting, has found something it can feast on without fear of much consequence, at least in this life.

I guess we just have to wait an eternity to find out for sure.

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Seeker friendly: Habits of the Hefner Heart

Hefner_2004_1In the final chaotic moments of the frat-classic “Animal House,” a well-endowed young woman with very little on is catapulted from a parade float and just happens to fly through the open window of a young boy who is secretly reading “Playboy,” landing safely on his bed. Stunned by this miracle, the boy looks to the heavens and says, “Thank you, God.”

As it turns out, this is very close to the mini-prayer that Hugh Hefner catches himself praying from time to time, according to a very seeker friendly report by Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter Cathleen Falsani. The 78-year-old uber-Playboy says he is a “pretty moral guy” who is trying to work out his own version of faith — which includes some of those old Midwestern values, lots of stuff he learned from the movies and a liberating splash of Darwinism.

Nevertheless, there are times when he just has to say, “Thank you, Lord.”

Hefner even spends some time in worship every now and then out in the grounds of the mansion he shares with his 20-something girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. Yes, that’s the lush backyard that contains an infamous grotto that has been known to host rites that would have been considered religious in many pre-biblical cultures, but not in the Methodist church of his puritanical parents. These were old-fashioned Methodists.

Hefner says that he urges his disciples to live their life as if there is “no reward in the afterlife, and do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you.” What has the Playboy papa taught his own children about life and faith?

“You start talking about evolution as something that’s real. The wonder of evolution. Not the bull—- of creationism,” he says. And if they ask him about God, he’ll describe a deity that he says he knows but doesn’t encounter in the Bible.

“I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in a biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, it’s just that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know,” he says.

“I would believe in a God who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah. I would vote in favor of that,” he says. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you and leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”

Is Hefner a great sinner? Does he subscribe to any particular moral code?

“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people,” he says, smiling widely, but not in a mischievous way. “I try to do what’s right . . . I define it in a way that is truly, what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.

“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion with the codification of all of the rules related to sexuality became law and played havoc with people’s lives. I think that — dare I say it? — is very un-Christian.”

There’s a lot more Playboy theology where this comes from. Hefner says he has always enjoyed his many theological chats with the likes of Jesse Jackson and his close friend Father Malcolm Boyd, a trendsetter on the left wing of the Episcopal Church. Boyd says Hefner is what he always has been — “a seeker.”

Actually, there is another way to describe the Hefner faith. While Falsani never uses the term, it is clear that Hefner is an archetype of one of the dominant religious trends of the late 20th century — “Sheilaism.” The term comes from Robert N. Bellah’s classic “Habits of the Heart.” Here is the crucial passage:

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”

And all the faithful members of the Playboy generation (including many with tenure in major seminaries) said: “Amen.”

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Not a tame lion

LionFigured I’d find out what the Kiwis were up to on the religion front, so I pointed my Mozilla browser at the New Zealand Herald. It turns out the paper has a ton of information on the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to be directed by the country’s own Andrew Adamson, and filmed in New Zealand and the Czech Republic.

Learn about the cast, the animatronic reindeer, the imported pack of wolves, the plans for the sequel, and the controversy over why LW&W (published first but not first chronologically) should be shot first. Policy wonks can even learn about the effects of subsidies and local labor laws on the filming of the movie.

Missing thus far is much discussion of the religious aspects of the film. Hopefully we’ll see more of this as production rolls along and the trailer is cut (the movie is slated for release in late 2005). I wanted to recommend a few good Lewis websites to tide readers over, but in my admittedly limited search, I couldn’t find many that were both easy to navigate and valuable. Readers are invited to chime in.

Here’s my one small contribution to discussion of LW&W: [major spoiler warning to those who have not read the book: DO NOT READ THE NEXT SENTENCE] I always assumed that Lewis, by having Aslan killed on a stone table with the ancient law written on it, was combining the cross with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. What do you all think of that?

[A footnote: Readers who don't like seeing nude images should avoid typing the word "Aslan" in Google's Images search.]

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Joan Rivers' hate couture

Joan_riversHere are two tidbits — something old, something new — from the weeklies that arrive at my snail-mail address.

First the old. From the Sept. 27 Newsweek, the hideous verb re-up has now entered the realm of surrogate motherhood:

“We had all of these embryos left over,” [Joan] Lunden told Newsweek. “Jeff and I have been banking these embryos for a while. It’s funny, you pay freezer storage on embryos and I got the ‘Do you want to re-up on your freezer storage?’ and Jeff and I said, ‘Oh, there’s a little sibling in there somewhere very, very cold.”

A rhetorical question that was too pregnant with meaning for Newsweek to address on its Newsmakers page: What the ethical implications when would-be parents choose not to “re-up on your freezer storage”?

Now for the new. From the Oct. 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly, comedian Joan Rivers continues her work as an ambassador of love:

Resplendent in a silver jacket, luxe fur scarf, black pants, and rhinestone-studded heels, Joan Rivers is angry as ever. As she frenetically paces the stage at the Stardust in Las Vegas, the crowd eats up her barbed mots on this steamy night in June. She tosses out a few zingers about Donatella Versace’s face — punctuating the joke by scrunching up her own famous enhanced visage — and Rosie O’Donnell’s hygiene (not printable in a family magazine) before directing her rage at born-again Christians. “I hate Jesus freaks,” she declares. “They’re ugly, she seethes, her huge cocktail ring bouncing sparkles around the room with every pointy gesticulation. “‘Jesus loves me,’ they say. If he loved you so much he would have given you a f—-ing chin.” If anyone in this blue-hair Vegas audience is offended, their qualms are buried by a room exploding in laughter.

A blue-haired Vegas audience bellowing at cheap-shot humor? Can it be? And if poor beleaguered Brad Stine were to do that last joke, aiming it at any other faith and its adherents and (of course) substituting freaking for Rivers’ F-bomb, how long would his next Promise Keepers gig last?

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The gauche that haunts me

Not sure how kosher it is to mention our own work on this website but I’ve been up late for the last few nights pounding out a few drafts of a story on the Deal Hudson flap for the website of The American Spectator. The tawdry tale is of interest for several reasons, including a few which have yet to be explored by the senior bloggers of this site.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Jeff Sharlet that the media has not given enough coverage to this story, both when it first broke in August and now in what appears to be its final act.

In August, the New York Times covered the story but it did so by assigning conservative primatologist David Kirkpatrick to do the honors. I have nothing against Kirkpatrick (fine reporter, interesting writer, etc.) but by tapping its man on the conservative beat to cover the story, the Times effectively said that it wasn’t interested in digging any further.

This time around, the Washington Times had a great story by Julia Duin and the Washington Post ran a brief item on page A9, buried under a notice about Senator John Kerry’s gains among Jewish voters. A restricted Nexis search for “Deal w/1 Hudson” for the last 60 days turned up only 44 items, many of those brief items in religion news digests.

It’s a shame that more reporters didn’t dig deeper because the best conflicts tend to be religious squabbles. Two things I tried to capture in my Spectator piece:

* The National Catholic Reporter scoop was made possible not by opposition researchers at, say, Catholics for Choice, but by conservative Catholics with axes to grind. Once Hudson’s charges of partisanship have had time to settle, it’s pretty clear that Deal was done in by his own crowd’s willingness to stick in the dagger.

* The revelations brough out some interesting — some would say troubling — strains of traditionalist Catholic thinking.

On this second point, Mark Shea wrote an article for the Catholic Exchange that is worth quoting at length:

I suppose, from a purely journalistic perspective, untrammeled by all that stuff about the Sacrament of Confession, teaching against the sin of detraction, teaching on charity, the centrality of the family and the rest, a reporter could evoke the all-excusing genie of the “Public’s Right to Know” as a “reason” for this contemptible hit piece written with no other object in mind than to destroy somebody whose politics are inimical to the editorial posture of the National “Catholic” Reporter.

But the National “Catholic” Reporter is supposed to be, well, Catholic. It is supposed to shed the light of Catholic Social Teaching so that those Awful Right-Wingers who practice the politics of personal destruction will understand true Peace and Justice. Yet viewed from a Catholic rather than a purely journalistic perspective, I can see no justification whatsoever for this shameful slime job. None.

Shea went on to argue, in all seriousness, that the Reporter‘s reporting violated the Sacrament of Confession. Over at the Envoy weblog (which doesn’t have permalinks) Patrick Madrid didn’t go quite as far but raised questions that the story might promote the sin of detraction.

Right now, most everybody who voiced objection to the Reporter story is backtracking but the opposition to the the idea of the story even being exposed in the first place was both real and deeply felt. Interviewing Patrick Madrid for the story (and I’d like to break from journalistic objectivity for a second to say that he came across as the nicest guy) I asked him if there was a tension between Catholicism and journalism. It is to his credit, I think, that he paused and then answered honestly: “I don’t think there’s a tension between Catholicism and good journalism.” Later in the same exchange, he said that he spoke up because he wanted to discourage “needless trafficking in the details” of the story, particularly the salacious aspects.

Rod Dreher, outspoken crunchy conservative Catholic assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, had a different point of view. In an e-mail he replied to Shea’s original broadside:

What it gets down to is this question: Can one be both a good journalist and a good Catholic? I fail to see why a journalist, Catholic or not, has to pay any attention to whether or not a public figure like Deal Hudson has gone to confession over his sins. The issue in this case was the sordid and abusive past of a conservative Catholic leader who had placed himself in an advisory capacity to the president of the United States, specifically in an effort to get him re-elected by telling him how to appeal to Catholics. That’s a news story.

You think?

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About Jeremy Lott

JeremyLott.jpgJeremy Lott has written about religion for many periodicals, from The Washington Post to Christianity Today to the late great Linguafranca. He is a contributing editor to Books & Culture and his feature story on the Christian culture industry, “Jesus Sells,” was collected in The Best Christian Writing 2004. His career so far includes stints at several magazines, from Reason to The American Spectator, and his journalism has appeared in a number of foreign publications in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.

Jeremy is a convert to the Catholic Church. He divides his time between Lynden, Washington, a small Dutch Reformed town near the Canadian border, and Fairfax, Virginia. His bachelor’s diploma in biblical studies from Trinity Western University arrived in the mail after he accidentally graduated.

Jeremy wrote for GetReligion from September 2004 to July 2005. He is now writing a book about hypocrisy.

The American Spectator
Books & Culture
The Christian Science Monitor
Colby Cosh
The Economist
“Jesus Sells”
Mark Shea
The Spectator (U.K.)

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Path of the Storm II: Was it something we did? Or said?

JeanneAll together now: Charley and Frances and Ivan and Jeanne.

It kind of sounds like a Cold War-era Southern sex farce movie from the 1960s, doesn’t it?

Suffice it to say that people down here in the fifth or sixth ring of Florida are not laughing at the moment. Hurricane Jeanne has turned straight toward us and may hit as a Category 4. I think I read somewhere that Texas was hit by four hurricanes in 1886 or something like that. This will be number four for Florida. One more and we can chant: We’re number one. We’re number one.

Therefore, it’s time to start asking ultimate questions, such as: Are we absolutely positive that the governor of this state’s name is Jeb and not Job?

Here is the end of one of the waves of Hurricane Jeanne stories down here:

“After this I don’t want to hear the word hurricane ever again,” said Anna Faustini of Port St. Lucie, who lost her rental home to Frances and fears Jeanne will finish off her worldly possessions. “I stacked all my stuff that wasn’t ruined in the driest part of the house, the garage, and covered it with a tarp, but I don’t have anywhere to move it to.

“If I can’t find another house I can afford in St. Lucie County, my daughter will miss out on her senior year at Westwood and our lives will be destroyed,” said a teary Faustini, who is living with friends in Lake Worth. “I’ve called everywhere, and no one has anything for $650 a month. It’s in God’s hands now.”

God shows up in quite a few of the news stories during hurricane season, but, so far, no one has put in print the question that you actually hear down here on the sidewalks and in the pews. The question is simple: Why is this happening? Close behind that question is this one: Why is God doing this to us? And then this one: Was it something we did? Why is Pat Robertson mad at us this time?

I would try to write that column myself, but I don’t think that I’ll have power much longer. In Hurricane Frances, I sent out some emails linked to a question I asked here at GetReligion: For what should people pray when in the path of a storm? That turned into a Scripps Howard column a few days later — just in time for Hurricane Ivan. Here is some commentary on some of these issues from Father Joseph Wilson of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Whitestone, N.Y.

Roman Catholics have long wrestled with these issues in liturgies, he said. The altar missal includes a rich variety of “Masses for Various Needs,” including prayers about the weather and harvests. The “Procession for Averting Tempest” begins with church bells, a litany of the saints and the following:

“Almighty and ever living God, spare us in our anxiety and take pity on us in our abasement, so that after the lightning in the skies and the force of the storm have calmed, even the very threat of tempest may be an occasion for us to offer You praise. Lord Jesus, Who uttered a word of command to the raging tempest of wind and sea and there came a great calm: hear the prayers of Your family.”

Finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross and sprinkles the surroundings with holy water. At that point, quipped Wilson, “I guess everyone assumes the crash position.”

OK, that’s kind of funny.

But the whole point is that these issues are timeless. Believers who ask these questions are in good company. The question I want to ask is more mundane: Is this a story? Should reporters down here be interviewing sacred and secular thinkers and putting this issue in the headlines?

UPDATE: The fine religion writer Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was hit with hurricane-related stress all the way up north. She has posted an interesting reflection on religion news and disasters on the blog she does for the Religion Newswriters Association. Check it out.

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Wallace_shawnRichard Major has filed a report for The Tablet on Archbishop George Carey’s visit to Truro Episcopal Church (beret tip: Simon Sarmiento). It’s a basic but flawed narrative of what has transpired in the broader Anglican Communion since the consecration of Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

The problems begin in the lead:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, last week flew to the United States to confirm 300 Episcopalians who have refused to recognise their own bishop. The parishioners at Truro Church in Fairfax, a wealthy suburb of Washington D.C, believe that Peter Lee, the Bishop of Virginia, has lost his authority because of his support for the consecration of Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, by the Episcopal Church of the USA (Ecusa). The consecration in November last year has effectively split the Anglican Communion.

So they’ve refused to recognize Bishop Lee’s authority and they met in a wealthy suburb of Washington? They must be obscurantists.

The deepening division within Anglicanism over homosexuality took a critical turn last summer when a Canadian diocese authorised the blessing of same-sex unions. Soon afterwards, Robinson was confirmed as bishop by Ecusa’s general convention despite the pleas of the Anglican Primates, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to refrain from doing so.

Mainstream Anglicans, in America and elsewhere, regarded these acts as a formal repudiation by Ecusa and the Canadians of received Christian teaching on sexuality, and the agreed position of the Communion.

So they’re not obscurantists, but mainstream Anglicans. As Terry is fond of reminding us, even if conservatives are outnumbered in most U.S. dioceses, they do stand with the majority of the Anglican Communion.

[The Anglican Communion's 38 primates] also insisted on intervention in the affairs of such provinces, calling on them to make provision for ‘episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities . . . in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury’. Dr Williams then set up a Commission, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames of Armagh, to resolve how such oversight might work.

In the meantime, he has appealed for a period of restraint. This has largely been honoured, although some American Episcopal parishes have tried to secede to African provinces, risking legal action by their bishops.

Here is the worst problem in Major’s report. Notice that only conservatives stand accused of disregarding Robin Eames’ plea for a period of restraint, though Eames has explained that he meant the plea for the entire spectrum of Anglicans.

There’s no mention of the Diocese of Vermont, like Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster, distributing rites for blessing gay couples — one of the very actions that led to the Lambeth Commission’s creation.

There’s no mention of Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno blessing a gay priest and his partner, or Bishop John Chane of Washington, D.C., doing the same. (Yes, General Convention has declared that such actions are “within the bounds of [the Episcopal Church's] common life.” But if General Convention’s votes were the last word on the matter for the whole of the Anglican Communion, the Lambeth Commission need not exist.)

There’s no mention of bishops railing against the American Anglican Council and the Anglican Communion Network as if these bodies are openly attacking the Body of Christ.

Fr David Moyer, leader of Forward in Faith in North America, told The Tablet that at the minimum Eames must ‘sternly rebuke Ecusa for its go-it-alone attitude’ and offer ‘immediate provision of security for the life and witness’ of conservative clergy. But he said Ecusa had become ‘irreformable’: liberals are in ‘tight control’ of the ship, he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Integrity, for 30 years the lobby group for Episcopalian homosexuals, refused to believe that Ecusa could be ‘voted off the Anglican island, as in Survivor‘. Its president, the Revd Susan Russell, said that ‘prophetic ministry always comes at a cost’. ‘The Church is stronger, the Gospel better served’ because of its change of mind about homosexual acts, she told The Tablet, adding that it was ‘incomprehensible’ that the presence of practising homosexuals in the episcopate might make people feel obliged to secede.

Russell’s use of imcomprehensible is reminiscent of Vizzini, Wallace Shawn’s character in The Princess Bride, and his fondness for the word inconceivable.

And let’s not forget Inigo Montoya’s perplexed response: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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